I felt a little bit dirty writing that, bordering on traitorous.
After all, bass have been very good to me. They’re responsible for many of my greatest memories, they contribute to my income, and I’ve built a large part of my life around them. While they’ll occasionally disappear temporarily, they won’t leave me like my college girlfriend or fire me like the boss who caught me skipping work to—you guessed it—fish for bass.
But, truth be told, they don’t grow all that big, they don’t fight terribly hard, and they don’t taste very good, at least not compared to many other fishes. Again, it feels unfaithful to write that to the species that has been so good to me. I’d be pissed if anyone else were to bash them, but as far as I’m concerned they’re fair game for my criticism. To borrow from the great film "Animal House:" "Only I can do that to our pledges."
But I’m still a little befuddled.
How and why did bass become America’s Number One Gamefish?
Why do grown men and women go bankrupt and nearly insane chasing them around the country?
Why do we have a Bass Pro Shops on every street corner from Florida to Canada, yet no Walleye Pro Shops or Crappie Land or Rainbow Trout Universe?
They’re Everywhere You can catch bass across the country—49 states, and possibly Alaska, too, although the one largemouth that showed up there a few years back was probably a hoax, a one-off or an aquarium release. Bass fishing in both Mexico and Canada can be exceptional. They’re in Brazil. They’re in various African and European countries, as well as multiple Asian nations. Japan has outdone the U.S., where bass originated, in many ways; most notably in the creativity of their tackle.
When Manabu Kurita caught a bass in a decade ago Japan's Lake Biwa that tied the longstanding world record, some of the good old boys flipped. “They can’t have our record,” was the underlying sentiment, although there was also a certain amount of pride that a pastime so distinctly American meant so much to anglers in other countries. Most of us in the U.S. may never treasure a carp the way they do in Europe, but we understand the passion.
That derives in part from the fact that largemouth, smallmouth, and spotted bass, despite their slight differences, are universally recognizable to anyone who’s caught one or all three. Whether you live in Ohio, California, or Florida, the adage that “a bass is a bass is a bass,” is true. They have more in common than what separate them.
Why can’t walleye become America’s most popular gamefish? Because you can’t catch them in any appreciable numbers in lots of states. Same with marlin, because not only are they expensive to chase, but if you’re landlocked you’re out of luck. Rainbow trout may be even more widely distributed, but they'll probably always play second fiddle. Bass seemingly live in every pothole, golf course pond, and river from coast to coast, and you have just as much chance of catching a trophy from one of those places as you do from one of the storied tournament fisheries.
You Can Compete While there are fly casting competitions and fly fishing tournaments, they’ve never taken hold the way the bass tours did, becaming a Saturday morning television staple. Americans love to compete. Give a pair of folks sitting on a porch a pair of quarters and before you know it one will have taken the other’s currency. Give them each a glass of beer, and it will quickly devolve into a chugging contest. We want things that are measurable, and we want to measure better than the next guy or gal.
Bassmaster founder Ray Scott figured that out. He also figured out that tournaments up through the 1960s had been perpetually hindered by cheating, real and imagined. By setting up rules and pairing anglers who did not previously know each other (and who, by early rules, had to be from different states) he could make it a fairer contest. Suddenly you had the potential to win a boat or a six-figure check or more. That’s the ultimate Horatio Alger story—one day you’re rowing yourself down the bank drowning a grasshopper and a few years later you’re being pulled into an arena in your glittering metalflake boat to the applause of thousands of screaming fans who want to see you hoist a Happy Gilmore check.
The Bass Industrial Complex As noted above, former tournament competitor-turned-billionaire Johnny Morris started Bass Pro Shops in Springfield, Missouri, and rode that success to become one of the most influential figures in the outdoors today. Why? It’s not just the T-shirts with pithy sayings, the frat-boy attracting hats, or the bargain-priced fudge. He took what was once a quaint but mundane activity—visiting your local bait shop and trying not to pass out from the chemicals keeping the minnow tank fresh—and turned it into destination shopping. He’s proof that you can add lots of zeroes to your bank account, one pack of worms at a time. Moreover, there’s a whole ecosystem that operates around him, from tournament circuits to bass clubs to guide networks, and they’re all feeding at that same trough.
It’s a Cultural Thing I asked 24-year-old Cole Floyd of Ohio, one of the hottest young anglers on the upstart Bass Pro Tour, why he was obsessed with bass to the point that he chose his college based heavily on its fishing team. His answer was tellingL “I grew up with my dad fishing. We were a fishing family.”
For those who were raised in it, they don’t know any other way to live. And for those, like me, whose entire families can’t tell a crankbait from a cantaloupe, it’s a way of finding your tribe. I’ve supped and shopped and fished with bass anglers all over the U.S., as well as in Africa, South America, and Japan, and while we may not agree on team sports or politics or much of anything else, that common language is a bonding agent. That goes back to the species’ ubiquity. I caught tigerfish in Zambia, but they don’t live many places. So, while it was a cool achievement, it was one that set me apart from my peers rather than bringing me closer to them.
The Experts Speak Rereading all of the above, I feel like I’ve just sold my crew down the river. I’ve described bass fishing as some big marketing ploy bound MacGyver style with chewing gum and rubber bands. There’s more to it than that. There has to be some substance, because no sale of snake oil could go on this long without the bottom falling out. So, I consulted people who are better anglers and possibly more articulate spokesmen than me for their opinions.
Kevin VanDam, four-time Bassmaster Classic champion, seven-time Bassmaster Angler of the Year, and fill-in-your-superlative (Tom Brady, Michael Jordan, and Tiger Woods have all been offered up as comparisons at one point or another) Bass Angler of All Time said that after 30 years of casting for cash and 50 years of obsession, he’s still enamored of bass for the same reasons.
“They’re so intricate and so adaptable to different kinds of water,” he said, echoing the ubiquity argument outlined above. But then he veered away. “To me it’s the thrill of the puzzle of what they’re doing on a given day based on the weather and all of the other constantly-changing conditions. It’s hard to think like a bass and especially to catch the bigger ones. They’re a different breed altogether from the smarter ones.”
Texan Keith Combs, three-time Toyota Texas Bass Classic winner and generally regarded as one of the most technical anglers when it comes to catching big bass, echoed KVD’s thoughts: “It's the challenge of finding them, and then they do so many different things. You can catch them a lot of different ways, but for me it’s always that quest to figure out how to catch them the best.”
Indeed, that’s it. As a friend of mine often says, I could play LeBron James in basketball a hundred times and I’m never going to beat him, but I could fish against KVD a hundred times and I might beat him once or twice. For top anglers like VanDam, Floyd, or Combs, it’s that thrill to perfect the unperfectable that draws them back.
“I’ve had a few days where I was 100% dialed in and I figured it out,” Combs said, leaving out the fact that he’s better than 99% of all the anglers who will ever chase bass and has spent 200 to 300 days a year on the water for the past 20-plus years.
You can catch them in 6 inches of water. You can catch them in 60 feet of water. You can catch them stitching a plastic worm across the bottom at a tortoise-like pace or you can burn your Rat-L-Trap until your arm falls off. Yet there’s always a feeling, no matter how well you do, that it can be done better.
It’s the American Dream I'll say it again: Americans like competition. We like shiny objects, such as metalflake bass boats and outboards that make big roostertails. We like to win money for playing games. We like competitions and airings of grievances where the winners get up on the stage and cry in gratitude and accomplishment at the end.
Bass fishing encompasses all of that, but it also does it in the wholesome environment of the outdoors. There are few barriers to entry. Literally, any kid with a stick, a string, and a bent pin can get started, regardless of geography. And, as the cliché goes, the fish don’t know if you’re black or white or brown; male or female; differently abled or different in any other way. Look at Clay Dyer, who was born essentially without arms and legs—he kicks ass on the bass tours.
Television host Mark Zona, who could fish anywhere and for anything he wants, dreams only of smallmouths that have never seen a lure. He fishes very often and still wants to take it to another level. Why?
“I get that question a lot,” he said. "'Do you ever get bored with it?’ There are certain things you vividly remember growing up. The first girl you kissed, or when you hit a home run in Little League. But nothing has been more crystal clear and vivid than the very first bass I caught. I remember what I was using. I remember the sky. I remember the pontoon boat. It was a 12-inch fish and when it swam out and ate my purple worm with three hooks, I was like ‘Holy #$%&! Did you just see that?’ I still get the same feeling catching bass at 50 as I did at 4.”
Ultimately, as much as bass are something we can never master, they’re also a image of what we’ve already accomplished, a Rorschach Test that reflects back on us what we want it to be.
No, they don’t grow as big as a tuna, pull like a giant trevally, or taste as good as walleye, but they provide a measuring stick for our values. You may want to catch one giant bass or you may prefer to catch 200 little ones. You might want to win a tournament with a mediocre catch or bask in the self-focused glory of releasing a winning limit in private. Done right, bass allow you to be you, and that’s all we can really ask of a creature with a brain the size of a pea.
Feature image via Bill Lindner Photography